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Shirley (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

SHIRLEY (2020)

Starring Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman, Victoria Pedretti, Orlagh Cassidy, Ryan Spahn, Paul O'Brien, Bisserat Tseggai, Allen McCullough, Tony Manna, Molly Elizabeth Fahey, Edward O'Blenis, Vincent McCauley, Emily Decker, Kecia Lewis, Alexandria Sherman and Robert Wuhl.

Screenplay by Sarah Gubbins.

Directed by Josephine Decker.

Distributed by Neon. 107 minutes. Rated R.

Pioneering genre novelist Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House, The Lottery and Other Stories) was not only groundbreaking as a writer – a woman in the 1950s and 1960s who became acclaimed and popular for her chilling fiction – but she was also known to be an exceedingly odd person.

Perhaps – in fact, probably – she was not quite as strange as she appears in this loose biopic, but that’s okay. Shirley takes Jackson’s life and makes it as chilling and inexplicable as her writing, and that is high praise, indeed.

People have been comparing Shirley to Edward Albee’s classic play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and the comparison is somewhat apt. It is a power dance between two couples – one young and slightly naïve, but stronger than they appear; the other older, jaded and manipulative.

It is probably telling that Shirley is not based upon a biography of the famous writer, but on Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 piece of historical fiction: Shirley: A Novel. This is not a traditional film bio; it is more fanciful, more dreamlike, darker, with jagged little edges and hidden depths.

The film takes place in Bennington College, where Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her professor husband Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) are living and where he is teaching. Jackson has just become a literary cause celebre due to the publishing of her legendary short story “The Lottery.”

Jackson is in the early phases of a book based on a local girl who has mysteriously disappeared. This story became Hangsaman, Jackson’s second released novel, and while Shirley paints the coming as one of her masterpieces, it was rather overlooked at the time and to this day is considered a rather minor part of her bibliography.

Jackson is also having personal issues. She almost never leaves the house. She is actively anti-social, often downright cruel. She refuses to act in the ways that society expects of her. She also is relatively sure her husband has been cheating on her. She also appears to have some significant mental issues, bordering on insanity.

Stanley, on the other hand, has a passive aggressive need for control. He is charming and seems like the life of the party, but he manipulates those around him for his own needs. In his own way, he is needier and clingier than his wife.

Into this toxic homestead arrives a recently wed couple who got married suddenly and scandalously because she became pregnant. The attractive and charming young couple Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young) have come to Bennington because Fred got a position working for Stanley at the college.

Stanley offers Rose a job cooking, cleaning and caring for Shirley in exchange for room and board – though offering is a bit of a misnomer, he makes it relatively obvious that she has no choice but accept if she wants her husband to succeed in academia.

What starts out as a relatively civilized relationship soon devolves into a bitter social push and pull of anger, drunkenness, and recrimination. Some relationships deepen as others are torn apart while these four academics – all damaged in their own ways – play some savage mind games with each other.

This kind of heightened drama can only work if the acting is top-notch and Moss, Stuhlbarg and Young knock it out of the park. Lerman was fine in his role, too, but his character is much more one-dimensional and less interesting.

Shirley can – and often does – make for uncomfortable viewing. However, it is also a smart and devious look at human mores and the ways that the world can be savagely cruel beneath the mask of civilization we all wear. This also describes the literary work of Shirley Jackson to a tee. While Shirley may not necessarily be completely accurate to Jackson’s life, it is certainly right on the mark when it comes to her art.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2020 All rights reserved. Posted: June 5, 2020.

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